Rodney Crowell focuses on the art of the song
ASPEN Neither on CD or in conversation does Rodney Crowell sound like a worry-free man. On his latest album, Sex & Gasoline, released in September, the 58-year-old musician proclaims his inability to understand women, or to love them perfectly, in the songs Truth Decay and Ive Done Everything I Can. In the title track, he frets about the insane standards of beauty imposed on American women. And on the finale, Closer to Heaven, he clicks off his dislikes hummus, nosy neighbors, buzz words like awesome and dude before assuring that, for all his crankiness, his soul is in good shape.Crowell doesnt limit his unease to his lyrics. Speaking by phone from his native Houston, Texas a city he described with depth and clarity in his 2001 album The Houston Kid he comes off as forthcoming, but also matter-of-fact and self-critical. He referred to his musical self as a work in progress. And he worriedly addressed a topic that comes up repeatedly on Sex & Gasoline: the oversexualization of women.If youre not a size zero, or have legs like Paris Hilton, youre sexually irrelevant, said Crowell, who performs Sunday at Belly Up Aspen. If youre 42, you might get traded in for a younger woman. Your intelligence and wisdom is not relevant anymore. Speaking of his wife, singer and former model Claudia Church, whom Crowell has been with for a decade, he said, Shes having a hell of a time coming to grips with herself. She couldnt keep herself alive in that, and I couldnt help her.It might come as little surprise that Crowell is the father of four daughters. The attention he pays to them and their issues, at least on Sex & Gasoline, is touching. But it seems that, as much comfort as he may get from his girls, there is also plenty of uneasiness. The albums title track is a lament for the aging process women go through: young and desirable at 19; Over 40, thats it for you. The song was inspired by the experience of one of his daughters.Its a father/daughter thing, where she has let herself be led to deaths door because she didnt fit societys image, said Crowell. He then noted that, statistically, one of four women in this country are subjected to some measure of violence. With four daughters, I was already predisposed to have one of my kids in a dangerous situation. Crowell did not always have all this deep-seated concern with the world around him. After moving to Nashville in the early 70s, and struggling along with the likes of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zant and Steve Earle to make a name for himself, he found success fairly quickly. In 1974, Emmylou Harris included two of Crowells songs on her first album; the following year, Crowell joined Harris famed Hot Band, which also included Elvis Presley sidemen Emory Gordy, Glen Hardin and James Burton.For three years, Crowell toured as a member of the Hot Band, a time which he remembers as good fun. We saw a whole lot of the world, Europe and North America. After leaving Harris group, Crowells ball kept on rolling. His recording career reached a momentous height with 1988s Diamonds & Dirt, an album that yielded an unprecedented five No. 1 hits on the country charts. Apart from making his own albums, he became a producer as well, most notably producing albums for Rosanne Cash, Crowells wife from 1979-1992. His songs were covered by numerous artists; the Grateful Dead performed a live version of his magnificent California Earthquake following the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.Still, something began to nag at Crowell. His songs, with titles like I Couldnt Leave You If I Tried and Shes Crazy for Leaving, tended to be out of the country cookie-cutter. As was his image: The cover of Diamonds & Dust featured the singer in standard country-star gear: tight black jeans, short-cropped denim jacket, long hair.I wasnt happy or fulfilled as a country star, said Crowell, who lives in Franklin, Tenn., a town some 25 miles south of Nashville that is home to several bona fide country stars, including Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, and members of the Judd family. That didnt do my soul any good at the time.Crowell took five years off, spanning the late 90s and into the 2000s. He read, he met his current wife my beloved, he said and learned how to have a marriage, and drove his kids to school. And when he re-emerged, in 2001, it was as a different sort of musician altogether.At the end of the day, I wanted to be recognized as an artist, not as a personality, he said of the transformation. If I had tried to get by on my personality I have an OK personality, but it feels like sleight of hand to me. It was like the door was opening from being a sort-of country star to being a star, and heres what youve got to do. And it didnt feel right to me.With The Houston Kid, Crowell received the recognition he sought. The critically adored album was a cycle of songs that re-examined his Houston childhood in all its poverty, family horror and youthful glory. The grippingly personal The Rock of My Soul detailed an abusive father, and the fear that he would follow the same trail: Another Houston kid, on a downhill skid for crying out loud. But there was also glory: the tiny treats of life in Telephone Road, the joy of discovering Johnny Cash in I Walk the Line (Revisited). (The song featured vocals by Cash, Crowells former father-in-law.)I rededicated myself to a different framework, Crowell said of The Houston Kid. I wanted my words to reflect the life I was living. I realized I was subconsciously discovering it, and then it became a conscious thing. It went from broad strokes to more deliberate.That new approach has scratched Crowells creative itch. But he also recognizes it as a mixed blessing. Taking the path of high art, and exploring issues that actually mean something to you, doesnt necessarily make for an emotionally easy time. In fact, Crowell is discovering that it is quite the opposite. For one thing, he exposes himself to the troublesome aspects of his existence: his rocky childhood, his concern for his daughters, the unsettled corners of his psyche. And on the other side, the artistic stakes have been raised.For the past four records 2003s Fates Right Hand and 2005s The Outsider, in addition to The Houston Kid and Sex & Gasoline my guiding factor was to try to find a core theme, a central driving point, and coax myself into writing much the same way youd write a book or a film script. Where its not just a collection of 10 or 11 songs, but a world you enter, said Crowell. And its still a work in progress. Everyday I get up and work at my art. I dont work at maintaining an image, or my place on the charts, or record sales. I work at maintaining my desire to write that elusive song that may not be a hit song, but the best piece of art I can create. My life since The Houston Kid is, I just live my days as an artist.On Sex & Gasoline, Crowell gambled by using producer Joe Henry. Not only was it Crowells first time using an outside producer, but Henry is known for experimenting using jazz musicians, edgy sounds and taking a different approach to every project. The move paid off: Sex & Gasoline, featuring such forward-looking players as string master Greg Leisz and the rhythm section of bassist David Piltch and Jay Bellerose, is a dynamic record that doesnt stretch Crowell too far out of his comfort zone. Crowell himself is pleased: Yeah, Id do it again. I should have done it before, he said of working with Henry. Its not a perfect record; its a breathing entity.The same could be said of Crowell as a performing musician. Not long ago, while playing in Ireland, some Irish friends advised Crowell to ditch the bass and drums from his performing combo, complaining that they couldnt hear all the lyrics.I felt that way, too. I wanted to push that aspect, said Crowell. I was starting to feel I wanted to get the poetry of it all pushed to the front. To go from bandleader to communicator, and someday to earn the recognition as a poet.Crowell hasnt performed in the Aspen area since he played with Harris Hot Band, in Snowmass Village, in the 70s. (He has visited, though, and even used the town in a song: The Obscenity Prayer (Give It to Me), a skewering of greed from The Outsider album, features the line, Give to me my Aspen winter/ Sorry bout the World Trade Center.) But when Crowell returns to Aspen, it will be in a stripped-down, adventurous format. His acoustic trio features violinist Jenny Scheinman, known for her work with cutting-edge jazz players, and Australian-born guitarist Jedd Hughes, who has been a member of Patty Loveless band.Its very interesting to me, musically, said Crowell, who has been touring in the trio format for several months. It keeps me on my toes. Ive always maintained that a well-written song, you only need yourself to deliver it.
The Rodney Crowell Acoustic Trio appears Sunday at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St. Tickets are $firstname.lastname@example.org
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